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Marriott's modern-day 'Man of La Mancha' a riveting homage to idealism

★★★½ (out of 4)

The sparsely furnished holding cell where Marriott Theatre's gripping revival of "Man of La Mancha" unfolds could be anywhere.

It could be a lockup at Cook County jail or Guantanamo Bay. It could be a subterranean detention center beneath a government building in a third-world country. But it is not the 16th-century dungeon prison where writer Dale Wasserman set the Tony Award-winning show (with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion) inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' 400-year-old epic "Don Quixote" and set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition.

Nick Bowling -- a canny, creative director whose productions have an inherent truth to them -- locates this play-within-a-play in the present, noting in his program notes that "the inquisition has never really ended."

He's right about that. Around the world the incarcerated await justice not knowing when or if it will arrive. It's within that environment of uncertainty and despair -- despair that too often descends to savagery -- that "Man of La Mancha" unfolds.

Broadway veteran Nathaniel Stampley -- a glorious baritone whose "Impossible Dream" stopped the show but who appeared to be holding back at Wednesday's opening -- stars as playwright Miguel de Cervantes who's charged with heresy along with his assistant Sancho (Richard Ruiz).

Accusing him of idealism, the other prisoners stage a mock trial. Using his art to defend himself (the transformative power of art is among the show's themes), Cervantes enlists his fellow detainees in recounting his tale of the delusional Don Quixote, with Cervantes himself in the main role.

Determined to restore to the world the chivalry, compassion and nobility it lacks, the self-appointed knight Don Quixote sets off with his faithful Sancho (an engagingly comical Ruiz) on a series of misadventures commencing with the jolly duet "Man of La Mancha."

Their journey concludes at a rundown inn, which Quixote mistakes for a castle. Its surly maid Aldonza (the terrific Danni Smith in a powerhouse performance combining toughness, weariness and vulnerability), he believes to be the Lady Dulcinea. The ill-treated Aldonza is the one most transformed by the errant knight, and it costs her dearly. But preserving one's ideals, aspiring to something more than mere self-preservation carries a price. Yet it's a price worth paying; it is what makes us human.

The production benefits from a small but mighty cast of singing actors. Noteworthy performances include Craig Spidle's indulgent innkeeper, James Harms' understanding priest and Matt Mueller's Doctor Carrasco, Quixote's future nephew-in-law, who worries Quixote's erratic behavior will taint his reputation.

Jeffrey D. Kmiec's forbidding, minimal set -- with its broken ceiling panels, uncomfortable benches and clutter consisting of the personal belongings with the strong pilfered from the weak -- is remarkably adaptable. Throughout the intermission-less production, the inmates use the rough-hewed benches to create a church, a wishing well, a tavern and even a tree, which is among several ingenious visuals conceived by Bowling and Kmiec. Jesse Klug's lighting -- ranging from harsh fluorescent to intimate spotlight (the latter illuminates beautifully Smith and Harms) -- also deserves mention.

"Man of La Mancha" is a dark show in every sense (it includes a harrowing depiction of a sexual assault). Stage combat (choreographed by Ryan Bourque) replaces production numbers. And several ensemble members are actors first and singers second. Yet it's a robust-sounding show thanks to music director Ryan T. Nelson and conductor Patti Garwood who leads an eight-piece orchestra plus two onstage guitarists who capture beautifully Leigh's flamenco-inspired score.